Nyles Morgan making believers

Nyles Morgan repaid the faith of Brian Kelly last weekend, and Notre Dame’s head coach was quick to back up his new middle linebacker again after a strong scrimmage.

Brian Kelly wants reporters to ask about Nyles Morgan more.

It wasn’t that way when the linebacker labored in the background as a five-star freshman, picking up praise Kelly didn’t expect would be measured against actual game performance. Then Joe Schmidt broke his ankle and Morgan was at the middle of Notre Dame’s defensive collapse.

And it wasn’t that way last year when Schmidt battled a broken hand and bad shoulder but ceded no playing time. In fact, Morgan had no role in last year’s defense at all, failing to even make the goal line package, passed by Jarrett Grace and Te’von Coney. Basically, the only linebackers Morgan beat out last year were red-shirting.

The disconnect between Morgan’s recruiting hype and his actual production almost made questions about his development an irritant to the coaching staff. Either the player wasn’t learning or the coaches weren’t teaching, at least that was the subtext of many asks about the linebacker.

Not anymore.

Not after Morgan looked like one of the best players on the field at Saturday’s open practice. Most of spring Kelly had been talking up Morgan. Now Notre Dame’s head coach had some evidence to back that up as Morgan was fast enough to cover tight ends 30 yards down the field and quick enough to erase slot receivers at the line of scrimmage.

It didn’t look like a player whose seven tackles against UMass last season accounted for nearly half his season total (17). Morgan made more than one tackle in a game just twice all last year.

“There’s not been a lot of talk about Nyles Morgan, which is kind of interesting,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy that didn’t play much last year and stepped into the middle linebacker role. There’s always a lot of talk about coach (Brian) VanGorder’s system and it’s so complicated and you’ve got to communicate and no one’s really talked about Nyles and it’s because he’s been that good this spring.”

Yes and no.

Until Saturday, Notre Dame had shown only early periods of practice. In other words, assuming Morgan had made the leap from backup to starter meant taking Kelly’s word for it.

But Morgan backed up Kelly’s belief with a performance the head coach said was more rule than exception.

Morgan took every starter’s rep and flashed the athleticism that made so many wonder why he hadn’t played more the past two seasons. However, that question is now moot considering Notre Dame has just four healthy scholarship linebackers this spring.

Morgan has to play a lot. That doesn’t mean he’s defaulted into this job, though, even if the only healthy alternative is Josh Barajas. Morgan is earning it.

“He’s gotten our defense lined up effortlessly,” Kelly said. “There’s been great communication, and he’s played extremely well. A lot of it is how hard he works at the game. It’s really important to him. His first two years here helped him immensely in terms of learning the defense.

“My point being is that we haven’t talked a lot about him because he’s really been good this spring in running our defense from that position.”

Maybe Morgan will be just as good this fall.

If that happens, Kelly will get a lot more questions about the junior linebacker. And Notre Dame’s head coach figures to be happy to answer them.

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